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One Queen to Rule Them All
on October 12, 2007
When we last left Elizabeth I (Cate Blanchett), she was young and inexperienced, struggling to come to terms with ruling a country. We now rejoin her in "Elizabeth: The Golden Age," which begins well into her reign; beginning in the year 1585, the film chronicles the growing tension between England and Spain and culminates with a fierce sea battle. It also examines the relationship between Elizabeth and Sir Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen), an adventurous seafarer. What we're presented with is less of an actual account and more of a dramatic love story, which basically means that it isn't even close to being historically accurate. But I guess that isn't a bad thing, considering the film's more creative aspects--"The Golden Age" is a triumph of set and costume design, and the performances are top notch.
If only the story were at the same level. It would be too much to say that the plot isn't interesting; rather, it isn't interesting enough. Much of the material plays like a run of the mill romance, regardless of the time period. I just know that so much more defined Queen Elizabeth I, and I wish the filmmakers had given her character a little more depth. Not that she's completely shallow--if anything, quite a lot weighs heavy on her mind, not the least of which is her conniving cousin, Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots (Samantha Morton). Most of their rivalry stems from different religious faiths: Elizabeth is Protestant while Mary is Catholic. Hoping to take control of the throne, Mary conspires to have Elizabeth assassinated. Intercepting on Elizabeth's behalf is Sir Francis Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush), the Queen's most trusted advisor.
On Mary's side is Philip II (Jordi Mollà), King of Spain, who believes that Elizabeth has turned England into a godless country. He intends to conquer the Queen by sending a mighty armada, and the Spanish Inquisition along with it. Elizabeth understands that England's resources are depleted, as is its money; a counterattack will be much harder to plan and execute. Despite being incredibly strong-willed, something is holding her back, something that's diminishing her confidence. She seems to rely on Raleigh to soothe her, despite not knowing who he is or where he came from. All we do know is that he's arrived home from the New World, where he named a colony in honor of the Virgin Queen (Virginia). We've seen many films that make the Mysterious Stranger engaging or downright sexy--indeed, Raleigh is dashing, flirtatious, and bold. Just watch the way he presents potatoes and tobacco to Elizabeth.
Hoping to win favor with the Queen, Raleigh gets close to her favorite Lady in Waiting, Bess (Abbie Cornish), and it becomes obvious that his affections are divided between these two women. This plot device could have been much more interesting had it not been so cliché; I've seen romantic conflict before, and it's usually reserved for escapist films. But "The Golden Age" is historical in context. I wanted more focus on the impending Spanish attack, especially since it was so intertwined with Elizabeth's assassination plot. The final major sequence does feature some battle, but not enough to be satisfying. It's as if the film fizzles out after spending so much time building itself up. It's not entirely a letdown, but it is a disappointment. This is especially true of Elizabeth's pre-battle speech: clad in armor, she rides a horse in front of her army while spewing encouraging sayings. I half expected her to say that the enemy may take their lives, but they'd never take their freedom.
Still, I have to give credit where credit is due. I greatly enjoyed Blanchett's performance; she gave Elizabeth a determined yet fragile quality that was compelling. I distinctly remember an emotional outburst aimed at the Spanish ambassador: "I too can command the wind, sir!" she screams. "I have a hurricane in me that will strip Spain bare if you dare to try me!" This moment was raw and overwhelming, which was appropriate given her emotional state. I also remember a scene in an astrologist's lair showing Elizabeth's desperation. She clearly couldn't stand not knowing how everything would turn out. It was prophesized that two kingdoms would battle and only one would fall--the Queen would like nothing more than to hear that England will be victorious. Unfortunately, that cannot be guaranteed.
Yes, there is a lot to recommend about "Elizabeth: The Golden Age," and thank goodness that the good outweighs the bad. This is not a perfect film, but it can still get an audience from point A to point B. And it certainly is wonderful to look at; every shot is so richly detailed that you can't help but admire the work that went into it. The costumes are vivid, colorful, and intricate. The sets are lavish and bold, with practically every location dripping with colorful tapestries. The armada attack features a number of convincing special effects. Basically, everything felt real in terms of the film's look. The film's story, on the other hand, wasn't all that it could have been. There's a wealth of material on Queen Elizabeth I, and I can't help but feel that most of it was disregarded to make room for romantic elements. Romance works, but only to a point.